Gordon DeMarco: Thrillers with America’s Hidden History

Gordon DeMarco who died aged 51 in his isolated cottage near Portland, Oregon, was a writer, an activist and an American original. His first book, October Heat, was a hard-boiled mystery and was at the beginning of that eighties wave which politically subverted the genre. With that and other stories – Frisco Blues, The Canvas Prison – he reached back into America’s hidden histories with general strikes and anti-fascist resistance as the setting for his hero’s adventures rather than mean streets.
Curiously, though, he chose Raymond Chandler rather than Dashiell Hammett, the more overtly leftist in the Who’s Who of crime, as his model. He saw Chandler’s writing as more of a social investigation than that of his formalised predecessor. Chandler, he felt, had created a language which embodied the poetry of the urban malaise and he incorporated it seamlessly into his own writing.

When Pete Ayrton and Ronald Segal began their experimental New Crime series for Pluto Press in the early eighties they saw October Heat as a prototype. It became the first book on their list and one of their biggest sellers. Unfortunately, the economic shift in publishing made little room for the likes of DeMarco. After the demise of the Pluto crime list he returned to the niche he had made for himself in the small press world.

Born in the suburbs of Akron, Ohio – in what is now America’s rust belt – DeMarco was swept up in the romance of the sixties. He took a history degree at the local university and a masters in political science from San Francisco State Collage. He arrived just as the upsurge of 1968 was climaxing and co-chaired the college’s Students for a Democratic Society chapter. I met him then and we became lifelong friends.

San Francisco became his spiritual home, though in recent years he despaired of its yuppiedom. He came to England in the mid-eighties, lived in London and then migrated north to what was to become his other great urban love – Edinburgh. He soon became part of the underground scene there, actively producing little marvels for the festival such as Who’s Afraid of Abbie Hoffman? And, later, a rather melancholy pastiche, Murder at the Fringe.

But Gordon was never totally comfortable as an expatriate. For some reason I could never understand, he preferred American TV and Sergeant Bilko remained a perennial favourite. His final years were spent in Portland where in 1992 he founded a publishing venture, West Coast Crime.

Gordon was a marvellous teacher of history and mystery writing in schools and universities, always encouraging those who took his courses and ever-willing to see the best in what people had to offer. He never achieved due recognition and lived too close to the economic precipice. ‘Maybe,’ he once said to me with a twinkle in his eye, referring to his migrant existence, ‘this is all a bad joke.’ Then he went off to write another book.

Gordon DeMarco, writer and activist, born September 6, 1944; died September 7, 1995